Kentucky’s Real Progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

On Friday, March 3, 2016 the Kentucky House made history when it voted for the first time in favor of a charter school bill and sent it on for Kentucky Senate approval.

The vote was contentious.

Debates in the morning meeting of the House Education Committee and during the eventual deliberation and adoption of the bill by the full Kentucky House sometimes were bitter – even tear filled. And, there were lots of inaccurate statements along the way.

One entirely too prevalent assertion mentioned by many legislators was that Kentucky has made great education progress since passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA). Sadly, while the state’s public education system has made some progress in the past quarter of a century, it’s a real stretch to say “great” progress has been made. Let’s examine why inflated claims of great progress are out of order.

Figure 1 shows the NAEP Grades 4 and 8 reading and math proficiency rates for all Kentucky students from the earliest available year of testing and the most recent, 2015 results. There obviously has been progress, more in Grade 4 than Grade 8, but calling this a “great” accomplishment just isn’t right.

For example, only 40 percent of Kentucky’s fourth graders tested at or above NAEP’s Proficient level in 2015 in both fourth grade math and reading. That means that after a quarter of a century of KERA, 60 percent of our fourth graders – well over half – still don’t meet muster in either subject. After a quarter of a century, with so far yet to go, does it seem right to talk about “great progress?”

In the eighth grade NAEP, results were even worse. Only 36 percent of the state’s eighth graders scored at or above the NAEP Proficient level in reading. Far more disturbing, only a truly disappointing 28 percent of Kentucky’s eighth graders met muster in NAEP math. That means 72 percent of the state’s eighth grade students – as of 2015, a full quarter century after the launch of KERA – still don’t perform adequately in math.

Figure 1

Kentucky's NAEP Proficiency Rates on 4th and 8th Grade Reading and Math Assessments, Earliest Year Tested and 2015, All Students

Based on the known rates of progress that can be calculated using the data shown in Figure 1, the Bluegrass Institute projected the number of years following 2015 that remain before Kentucky can anticipate that at least 80 percent of its students will score proficient or above on the NAEP. You can see those projections in the table inserted in the upper right side of Figure 1. Those time estimates to reach 80 percent proficiency rates on the NAEP range from at least 34 more years required in Grade 4 math to an astonishing 126 more years for Grade 8 Reading.

With so much left to do, it is obviously inappropriate to crow about already making “great” progress. A large amount of progress simply hasn’t happened.

By the way, the situation looks MUCH worse when we examine the NAEP performance of Kentucky’s black students. Claiming “great progress” once this actual data is examined is simply unacceptable.

As Figure 2 shows, even as 2015, the NAEP reports only depressingly low percentages of Kentucky’s black students scored proficient or above in both Grade 4 and Grade 8 reading and mathematics.

Figure 2

Kentucky's NAEP Proficiency Rates on 4th and 8th Grade Reading and Math Assessments, Earliest Year Tested and 2015, Black Students Only

In two cases shown in the table insert in Figure 2, the trends on NAEP tell us Kentucky is nearly a century away from seeing a desirable math proficiency rate for its black students. In eighth grade math, the goal is the better part of two centuries away. In the case of Grade 8 Reading, the 80 percent proficiency rate goal is more than 2-1/2 centuries away!

This is simply unacceptable.

Clearly, Kentucky’s actual NAEP performance renders claims of great progress to be greatly exaggerated.

Some of the “great progress” claims involve how Kentucky has moved forward compared to other states on the NAEP. There are several problems with those claims, too.

For one thing, comparing Kentucky’s NAEP performance to that in other states isn’t a trivial matter. You can’t simplistically compare overall scores for all students and begin to get correct impressions because student demographics have been shifting dramatically in many areas of the country. Nationwide, the proportion of whites attending public schools in 2015 is now only around 50 percent while Kentucky’s white population has stayed more stable and much higher at around 80 percent. At present, any comparison of overall average scores from Kentucky to other states winds up actually doing a very apples-to-oranges comparison, lining up Kentucky whites against racial minorities elsewhere. Due to huge achievement gaps, that gives Kentucky a very large, and unearned, advantage in those comparisons.

For another thing, education progress elsewhere across the nation hasn’t exactly been something to crow about, either. Many recognize the real challenge for Kentucky’s students won’t come from other states; it will come from students in other countries who currently beat the pants off the United States in all sorts of international testing. And, while the evidence from international testing might also be accused of being apples-to-oranges with the United States, the fact that huge numbers of hi-tech jobs in manufacturing and computer technology have migrated overseas indicates that the international testing probably isn’t completely misleading, either. Thus, the entire country has a big education problem, and only measuring ourselves against other states still might be setting the bar far too low.

In any event, Kentucky’s progress against the NAEP’s performance standards remains very slow and highly problematic. Given the evidence in Figures 1 and 2 above, it is clear that anyone claiming Kentucky’s public education system has made great progress either just doesn’t know the reality or is pushing some other agenda that doesn’t want to recognize the grim fact that only 12 percent of this state’s black eight graders can read proficiently and a scarcely higher percentage of Kentucky’s blacks, just 15 percent, are reading up to NAEP’s standards. It’s a shame if anyone thinks those dismal statistics are in any way part of “great progress.”

Technical Note: NAEP Scores were assembled from the Main NAEP Data Explorer web tool.